How photographs reveal the march of urban progress
A group sitting down to picnic alongside a hazy river, nearby a small boat. It is an arcadian scene. But in Nadav Kander’s lens a huge new bridge sweeps in to transform that view to a canvas for change, its enormous columns pulling the traditional into the future of rapidly urbanising China. On his journeys up the River Yangzte, over two and a half years, Kander captured half built bridges and encountered the displacement of the Three Gorges Dam. Taking on the watery whiteness of Chinese art and the structures of a romantic landscape painting, he places tiny figures and their everyday lives against the vastness of monumental construction projects.
Kander’s Yangtze journey lies towards the end of the Constructing Worlds exhibition which has just opened at the Barbican. The curators, Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone (previously of the Architecture Foundation and more recently collector and curator of the fascinating tiny show Archizines), wanted to explore how photography had emerged as a practice alongside the modern metropolis from the 1930s through to the current day.
Eighteen photographers span these 80 or so years. They don’t all take on huge landscapes like Kander. Often though the architecture is used as a signifier of place. The shots of the unfinished Torre David in Caracas, and its squatting inhabitants, by Iwan Baan represent the huge challenges of urban populations in South America. Although critical thinking is often now a pre-requisite for fine art, some less than critical architectural photography makes it in, identifying closely with the ambitions of the architect and the values of their design: Julius Shulman and his photographs of the Case Study Houses; Herve’s seminal photographs of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Luigi Ghirri’s cold shots and the formalism of Aldo Rossi’s grids all fit here.
Bernd and Hilla Becher sit on the pivot between architecture as object and architecture as a signifier, a container of meaning. Industrial structures – notably water towers – stand proud but alone, the viewer left to meditate in solitude too. And their influence is felt through the megaviews of Andreas Gurksy – here in huge prints – and scenes from Stephen Shore’s road trips. Shore’s forest of signs disappearing into the distance signals a turn away from the epic to the everyday as he searches for the quintessentially American street.
And so back to the starting point of the exhibition: the composition of the city. Berenice Abbott, returning home in the 1930s after years in Europe with Man Ray and Eugène Atget, was blown away by the pace of change in New York City. Heroic yes, but also a palimpsest for the modern world. Her Rockefeller Centre is like one you have never seen, shot from below with the detritus of life edging over the rock excavation beneath.
Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age
Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London 25 September to 11 January
And there’s more
Related events include The Power of Images – How Photography Changed Architecture, a visual discussion with new RIBAJ columnist Oliver Wainwright on 7 October at the RIBA, and photography workshop Run, Jump, Shoot on 11 October.
Details at architecture.com or barbican.org.uk